Use the 90|8|7|3 rule to increase productivity
The 90|8|7|3 rule isn’t a magical mathematical or investment formula. It is, however, a formula that will help you perform your very best work, day after day and week after week, for years to come. This formula isn’t something that I invented and it isn’t something that I quickly or easily implemented in my own life. The formula comes from my mother-in-law, Susan Robison (The Professor Destressor). Just like everyone’s mother-in-law, Susan travels the country training academic faculty on how to perform at the “peak” of their ability. ☺ The work of an academic faculty is fundamentally different from designing and developing software as I do, but the principles I will introduce to you will help you to manage your own career or to get the very best productivity from the teams that you manage.
The 90|8|7|3 formula is based on research of how our human brain works, and more specifically, the amount of work-induced “stress” our brains can successfully handle in measurable doses. There are many great authors and scientific researchers out there that can provide more in-depth knowledge on this topic. It is the study of this productivity research over a lengthy career that led my mother-in-law to coalesce that collective wisdom and pen this “rule” in her own words.
Our brains can only handle about 90 minutes of focused work effort in a single meaningful dose. After that point, the brain’s efficiency and effectiveness begins to degrade. Forcing yourself to continue working beyond 90 minutes results in more errors and ultimately, an inferior product. Research suggests that if you step away from your keyboard, screen, or whiteboard and disconnect for about 10 minutes, you are able to reset your brain for another block of intense thinking. Use this break to take a walk, surf the web, or do something else that involves little or no thinking. It should be something that you consider fun and enjoyable. Be wary of using this time to check your email, however, as research suggests that this type of activity does not normally produce the same “reset” result as a true break away from work would.
For me, 90 minutes is a guideline… kind of like when Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is explaining the “Pirate’s Code” to Elizabeth (Keira Knightly):
Elizabeth: Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren...
Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.
I don’t set a timer that notifies me after 90 minutes of work time, but I have developed a routine that works for me. That routine includes a couple of scheduled breaks where I step away from my desk and do my own thing. I have always made my managers aware of the parts of my routine that make me a more productive employee. I have also encouraged others around me or those whom I have managed to implement this for themselves. After the break, my brain is ready for more.
After 8 hours of sustained work, your brain and your body need an evening away. Hahaha you say! How many people in this industry work a plain old 8 hour day? Not many, I would guess. What am I really saying here? An evening is generally considered a period of time “after work” where you get home, eat dinner, relax, sleep and then return for the next day’s work. There are still some out there that work normal business schedules and can truly work an 8 hour day. However, in this world of constant connection that we now live in, many people in our industry take their work home with them and push on into the night after the kids are in bed. Sometimes this turns into one 8 or 10 hour day followed by a second smaller shift after dinner.
There is some flexibility in this rule as well. What the research really shows is that our brains can function at a very high level for a limited number of hours in a row. 8 hours in a row is about the limit without a lengthy break. This break is unlike the 10 minutes break for every 90 minutes of focused effort I discussed previously. This break is on the scale of hours and it allows your brain to reset in a deeper way.
For me, the 8 Hour rule works for some days, but when there are tough deadlines, I break my day into two shifts of 5 or 6 hours and I take an extended break between those shifts. My break almost always involves one of these three things (in no particular order):
- Exercise. I’m a cyclist and I typically will take a 25 to 30 mile bike ride.
- Hobby. I play guitar, and there are always new songs to learn or a new technique to master.
- Family. I have and wife and two great kids who are always ready for some fun.
Each person must define what constitutes a break for him or her. Maybe it is a few rounds of an on-line video game or catching up with friends on Facebook. Try it out. I guarantee that breaking up a really long day into manageable chunks will improve your productivity, reduce your fatigue and stress, and increase your overall happiness.
Your body needs a sabbath on the 7th day. I use a small “s” here because I am not talking about the sabbath in terms of religion. I am talking about your brain and body needing a day or more truly away from your work. I have worked for several great companies and great managers over the years that have been very protective of the weekend time of their development team. I have also heard many horror stories about developers working way too much and not having regular weekend time away from the office. I am also finding that more people in this industry struggle because they are staying connected to work and the office on their multitude of devices even when they are physically away from the office. Consider how you designate your own sabbath time and find ways to focus solely on family, friends, and meaningful relationships when you are away from the office.
Put the vacations on your schedules now! Your body needs an extended (days to weeks) break from work after about 3 months. In terms of faculty development, academic calendars have evolved to approximately a 3 month intense instruction period followed by a break of at least a week. This equates to spring and winter breaks, fall and spring semesters, quarters, etc. In the world of software development, we don’t necessarily have natural breaks built into our yearly schedules, so we need to be extra vigilant and protective of our vacation time.
I struggle with this one myself. I am an intensely devoted family man AND an intensely devoted employee that thrives on working hard and taking pride in anything I produce. I have, however, come to appreciate that my work drastically improves when I do step away from the office and return with a fresh start. I am more creative, plain and simple. I create better products and that equates to more success for my company and my clients.
I see a lot of young people in this industry that are overflowing with talent in the form of coding and designing or some specific software or development architecture. They are coming out of college with great new ideas and landing their first jobs and starting down the paths that will develop their careers. I think that the development talents get these people their early jobs, but it takes a lot of interpersonal skill and excellent self-management to truly be successful in this industry. The research on productivity suggests that when individuals adopt a formula akin to the 90|8|7|3 rule, they are more productive and profitable employees over their careers. They live with less stress, they are more creative, and they don’t burn out from the demands of software development life cycles.
The increased productivity from adopting good self-management will certainly benefit your life. It will also benefit your employer, and that will hopefully pay dividends back to you in the form of a raise or a bonus or the next pick for a promotion. I firmly believe that great interpersonal skill and self-maintenance will not go unnoticed.
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